Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Hindered Gospel

The youth of the Broadway Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas were scheduled to embark this coming Friday, July 3, on a long-scheduled music and mission tour to eastern Kentucky to sing praise to Almighty God and build decent housing for Appalachian poor people—two very basic things biblical faith commands followers of Christ to do.

They had carefully planned to work with Mountain Outreach, a mission associated with the University of the Cumberlands located in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and to stay in dormitories on the university campus.

On Monday of this past week—two days ago— Broadway received a phone call from the university informing us that the youth group was not welcome at University of the Cumberlands. The subsequent facsimile sent to Broadway Minister of Youth Fran Patterson, in its entirety, said this:

“In light of the recent decision at the Southern Baptist Convention regarding your status and affiliation with the convention, we have determined that we must resend (sic) our invitation to participate in our summer program with Mountain Outreach beginning July 5 through the 11th. We regret any inconvenience that the situation has caused especially in such short notice.

“Any inquiries in this matter may be directed to the office of the President of the University of the Cumberlands.”

Presumably, only those affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention are qualified to do the work of the Lord at Cumberland.

Perhaps poor people who live in substandard housing in eastern Kentucky care about the denominational affiliation of those partnering with them in improving their lives. I lived and ministered in that lovely part of the world from 1986-1989 as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Albany, Kentucky, but I simply do not remember any such concern.

What I do remember is that the good people of Kentucky conducted themselves with the highest standards of Christian grace and hospitality.

When I delivered the Franklin P. Owen lectures on the campus of the University of the Cumberlands last September, during my tenure as Interim Pastor of Broadway, I received nothing but a respectful, gracious reception from the fine faculty, staff, and student body there.

Indeed, I discovered that the University of the Cumberlands mission statement, “to offer promising students of all backgrounds a broad based liberal arts program enriched with Christian values,” is put amply into practice.

So, I am puzzled by this impoliteness.

Furthermore, I am fairly certain, even in my limited understanding of the mysterious ways of God, that the work of the Gospel is not helped but hindered by Cumberland’s reactionary decision.

So is this is what it all has come to in Southern Baptist life, a moral absolutism so airtight that is has no room for a bunch of kids who just want to do something good for God?

The decision has left Youth Pastor Fran Patterson scrambling to make other arrangements so that the young teenagers eager to serve their fellow human beings would not be disappointed. I received the following email correspondence from Fran just now:

“Thank you so much for your support and help in this difficult situation. I think I have finally found a place for us to stay and serve in the Nashville area. The whole trip was planned around the mission project in Kentucky, so I needed to find a place that wouldn't upset the rest of the schedule. It is nice to know that there are friends out there who love us and support us in what we do. I am meeting with the youth tonight to explain the happenings of the last few days.”

I wish that youth pastor did not have to make such an explanation to people in such a formative stage of their moral development. Even the wisest moral teacher would have a difficult challenge making sense of this to an adolescent understanding. I have had two days to reflect on it, and my adult mind is still confused.

Perhaps the President of the University of the Cumberlands should give the explanation. He would say that the recent disfellowship of Broadway by the Southern Baptist Convention put him in a difficult position with regard to his trustees and donors. He would say that he couldn’t risk association with a church that receives all persons, regardless of background or condition, into its life and fellowship. He would say that he simply had the best interests of the university in mind.

But when he finished speaking those kids still would be confused. So would the poor folks of Whitley County. So would I.

And, I suspect, so would Jesus.

So, on second thought, save the explanation. Issue an apology instead.